Local Governments Opt Out of Legal Weed and Ruin It for Everyone

Implementing statewide cannabis normalization is messy for cities and counties.

Look, if you haven’t figured this out yet, let me suggest something: The U.S. government on a federal level is gnarly, but it’s your local government that ends up saying what you can and can’t do. For example, the federal government says weed is illegal, but as of now, nine states say adult consumption is perfectly legal in their respective jurisdictions. But look closer. Local governments within legal states (think, cities and counties) are pulling back from legal pot, or at least trying to determine if their little piece of paradise is better off without legal recreational weed, and should opt out, exempting its city boundaries or country lines from marijuana normalization. Because they can, because this is how our one-hell-of-a-complicated state-by-state pot system works.

The local option in statewide marijuana ballot measures allows local political jurisdictions (usually counties or municipalities) to make decisions based on the popular vote within their own borders. Historically, the local opt-out has covered selling alcohol. Lately, this option is being considered in many newly weed-legal states.

Image via lamarihuana.com

Maine, for example, passed its statewide legalization of marijuana on November 8, but plenty of local governments are trying to overturn the voters' decision. According to Maine law, the losing side can request a recount if the race was close enough. In this case of the state's Question 1 legalization measure, it most certainly was—within 1.5 percent of votes. Data suggests that a recount may change the outcome.

"That doesn't mean re-examining these votes is likely to change the outcome of these elections," Mike Tipping writes in an article for Bangor Daily News. "In fact, it’s a vanishingly unlikely possibility,”  He explains that many studies of contested election results show there’s practically zero chance that angry weed haters in Maine can overturn the vote. 

In already weed-legal state, Oregon has a lot of haters too. The state legalized adult recreational consumption in 2014. Plenty of communities around the state are still embracing local opt-out provisions. Currently, at least 16 cities have passed laws to prohibit weed marketing in their communities. That list just keeps growing.

If these small-town exemptions sound unreasonable, remember that local opt-outs for alcohol are an all American tradition. Ever been to a “dry” city in Utah, for example, and needed a beer? Or realized that some communities only offer low ABV in their beers? Local governments actually have some power. In the case of marijuana, a lot of communities are exercising their prerogatives.

Figuring out how to make legal weed happen and work for both the people and the state is one big clusterfuck that requires a lot of time, tax money, and effort from local lawmakers. 

If weed-phobic communities continue with their resistance to normalization, they’re not just denying their residents the benefits of government-sanctioned, commercialized cannabis, they may end up hurting their entire state.

From Cannalaw Blog:

Oregon’s opt-out cities and counties are keeping their pot smokers but turning away vital tax revenues. In addition to ignoring this potential new revenue stream, the opt-out cities and counties are saying no to economic development at large. They are passing on infrastructure funding, local jobs and tourist dollars. As for their citizens, it seems obvious that if the legal marijuana market is banned, pro-pot locals will take their money elsewhere (unless they choose to remain at home and purchase on the black market).

Perhaps it’s not just that localities want to opt out of legal weed on moral grounds. It could also be that figuring out how to implement legal-weed programs properly, safely, and efficiently a big and timely mess.

California just passed Prop 64, allowing people 21 and over to buy recreational weed. The Adult Use of Marijuana act allows people to grow up to six pot plants in their homes. But some of the state’s localities are having a hard time figuring out what all the regulations mean. For example, San Diego is proposing a 45-day moratorium to figure out pot-shop logistics. As of now, San Diego is just not sure how Prop 64 will affect their citizens. There’s been a lot of pushback from the local community in city council meetings. Concerned citizens are wondering if weed shops will show up near schools, if and what regulations should be put in place to keep their kids safe, and how legal weed might affect the local economy.

"Let’s pause here and think this through so that our citizens are safe and so we have good policies in place that are best for families," proposed Councilwoman Lorie Zapf in a committee meeting.

Image via @therootcellars/Instagram

Another confusing factor in enacting legal weed plans in newly normalized states is that so many different government organizations, all seemingly with a different point of view, are expected to eventually come together to figure out how to make recreational pot work for their community.

Voters in the state of Nevada elected on November 8 to join the pot normalization bandwagon, but the Las Vegas Police Department is still following orders to cite people with pot. The LVPD intends to do so, as if weed is still a very illegal and Schedule I drug, until the new legal recreational marijuana law goes into affect, officially, on January 1. But the local district attorney's office, with a seemingly different view on weed matters, has signaled it may look the other way when it comes to prosecuting these pot possession cases.

Plenty of communities will continue to use local opt-out laws against weed in newly recreationally-legal states. So far, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado seem to be able to live with that. The bigger problem seems to be that figuring out how to make legal weed happen and work for both the people and the state is one big clusterfuck that requires a lot of time, tax money, and cooperation from local lawmakers.

The hope is that as more states establish working medical and recreational weed programs, newer states that sign up for normalization might be able to speed up the process and sooner reap the benefits.